By Leonid Bershidsky / Bloomberg Opinion
The Bucha atrocities and more recent evidence of torture from the areas near Kharkiv recently retaken by the Ukrainian military create an impression of a Russian genocidal zeal; the kind exhibited by Nazi German troops in the territories they captured or, say, by Italian fascist troops in Ethiopia.
Yet Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine adventure is such a flop precisely because he is failing to ignite the kind of hatred and self-righteousness in the Russian nation that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini inspired in Germans and Italians.
The Italian empire had a population of some 56 million in the 1930s compared with modern Russia’s 140 million, yet Mussolini’s 20,000 Blackshirt storm troops quickly expanded to 115,000 in 1935-36 for the Ethiopian campaign, Pier Paolo Battistelli and Piero Crociani wrote in “Italian Blackshirt 1935-45.” There was no shortage of volunteers.
Germany, with a population of about 85 million, saw the Waffen SS, the Nazi party’s own army, grow from a maximum of 28,000 to 150,000 in the first year of World War II, George Stein wrote in “The Waffen SS: Hitler’s Elite Guard at War, 1939-1945”; this despite the SS troops’ extreme selectiveness at the time.
Both in Germany and in Italy, the professional militaries were jealous of the dictators’ party troops, which signed up voluntarily for much longer service terms than those decreed for ordinary soldiers. Both Hitler and Mussolini had to compromise, keeping the numbers of Waffen SS and the combat-ready Blackshirts down and placing them under regular military commanders in the field. But even the regular troops — at least in Germany — were permeated by Nazi ideology. There is lots of evidence of Wehrmacht soldiers’ ideologically driven atrocities, even though its conscript soldiers may not have been Nazi party members.
Putin can only dream of the volunteer numbers the 20th-century fascist regimes could raise. Months into the war, the combined strength of the volunteer battalions formed in the Russian regions was barely in the tens of thousands, and it was hard to say if many of the volunteers were motivated by patriotism in the sense Putin or the Russian far right understand it. Rather, the battalions’ main lure for able-bodied men was the promise of salaries they couldn’t count on in their home regions. The message the Wagner Group private military company is pushing in its ads is that of romanticized, testosterone-fueled adventure as an alternative to boring work in a factory; but its actual promise, too, is of a high, reliable income. Even the prisoners Wagner is recruiting to flesh out its private army are offered substantial cash in addition to a pardon after six months on the front lines.
One could say Russians aren’t joining Putin’s war in Nazi Germany-like numbers simply because they fear for their lives, or because they’ve heard stories of how poorly equipped and commanded the Russian military was, or simply because Russia doesn’t appear to be winning. But one could also argue that a strong ideological motivation could push these concerns into the background. The ever-swelling Waffen SS was an all-volunteer force well into 1942. Belief in the superiority of the German Volk and the “Aryan race,” and thus in their final victory, prevailed for many months after Hitler’s armies ceased to be unbeatable.
Russians don’t believe in anything of the kind, nor do they, en masse, hate Ukrainians. In August 2022, the Levada Center, one of the last pollsters still trying to obtain objective results in Russia, reported that 68 percent of Russians held a positive opinion of Ukrainians; down from 83 percent in October 2021, but still an overwhelming majority, especially given the realities of an oppressive regime. Many respondents would hesitate to tell a pollster — who might be a secret police official or some other kind of informer — that they like the folks the Russian military has been fighting for the last seven months.
Attitudes toward Ukraine as a state have been mostly negative since long before the war: Only 34 percent of Russians were sympathetic toward it in February 2019, according to Levada, and that was down to 23 percent in August 2022. That, however, is hardly a robust foundation for genocide: A Russian soldier, after all, has to shoot at actual Ukrainians, not at an abstract state or government.
An affinity for cash has been the Russian regime’s only true ideology throughout Putin’s rule. According to the latest wave of the World Values Survey, a plurality of Russians — 48.8 percent, compared with 37.9 percent in the supposedly more materialistic U.S. — consider economic growth the country’s most important goal. Russians learned to be self-sufficient in the 1990s as the paternalistic Soviet state fell apart, and they reveled in this self-sufficiency as the country’s economy was gradually restored. “Every man and woman for themselves” has been the nation’s unofficial motto, first a survival refrain, then a recipe for well-being. So, when the regime needed something akin to the Mussolini- or Hitler-style nationalist, imperialist revival, the regime struggled to offer its volunteers anything more convincing than cash.
Russian ultranationalists are aware of the shortage of to-die-for ideas and powerful stories. Philosopher Alexander Dugin, whose daughter recently died in a terrorist attack the Russian authorities are blaming on a Ukrainian woman, wrote in an article on the nationalist website Tsargrad.tv:
“Russia finds itself in a state of ideological war. The values defended by the globalist West — LGBT, the legalization of perversions and drugs, the merger of man and machine, the ubiquitous mixing caused by uncontrolled migration — are inextricably linked to its military and political hegemony and the unipolar system. Western liberalism and the global military, political and economic domination of the U.S. and NATO are one and the same. To fight the West and at the same time to accept (even if partially) its values, in the name of which it is waging war on us, an extermination war, is simply absurd. Our own full-fledged ideology isn’t just a nice-to-have. If we don’t develop it, we will lose.”
There’s nothing here that Putin would dispute. Days before Dugin’s article appeared, he signed a “Humanitarian Policy Concept” that claims Russia is in a “battle for cultural supremacy” against the West.
The difficulty in selling a kind of post-fascist pseudo-conservative ideology to Russians is twofold. First, propagandists need to get people to internalize the idea that the current war isn’t really against Ukrainians (whom, remember, more than two thirds of Russians actually like) but against the U.S. and NATO, which are supplying Ukrainians with their weapons. That narrative is already widespread on state television and pro-Kremlin Telegram channels as an explanation of recent Russian setbacks. The flaw in it, however, is that there are no NATO boots on the ground; and the other support Ukraine is receiving was predictable before the invasion, so the decision to invade despite it is looking less and less defensible. Both Putin and Dugin have said that Russia had no other choice but to start the war. Yet neither has convincingly explained why some kind of pre-emptive strike against a clearly stronger adversary — and not just against the presumably weaker Ukraine — made practical sense.
Even if Russians accept this narrative, however, the survivor and the individualist in them will doubtless wonder why it makes sense to die in this war. Is a ban on same-sex marriages or on marijuana worth the ultimate sacrifice? Would I take a bullet to prevent the “merger of man and machine”? Do I care that deeply about global migration? None of the “traditionalist” ideas Dugin, and Putin, would have Russians defend with their lives are as powerful as the evil constructs the 20th-century fascist leaders were so good at drumming into their nations’ minds. Nor does either of them have the charisma to keep people from asking the most basic of practical questions: “Why is this supposed to be a matter of life and death to me?” And, most importantly, Putin hasn’t achieved the momentum of military victories that made both Mussolini’s and Hitler’s rhetoric far more attractive than it should have been.
At this point in the conflict, any on-the-fly ideological revision looks and feels like an attempt to justify defeats. Putin missed his chance to become an ideological, populist leader years ago; while he was still winning.
It’s also worth recalling that, for all their superior populist skill and strong rapport with millions of their compatriots, neither Hitler nor Mussolini ended up ruling the world; or even successfully defending Germany’s and Italy’s place in it. As a less competent fuehrer, Putin risks doing at least as badly for Russia.
Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”